Guest slot 5 - Reshma Ruia, award winning author and poet
Today we return to writing on the blog, with guest author and poet, Reshma Ruia. Currently residing in Manchester, Reshma has written two novels, several short stories, as well as award winning collections of poetry. One of her poems, Mrs Basu Leaves Town features on the A-Level English syllabus, no less! A champion of inclusivity and fighting to ensure all voices are heard in publishing, Reshma also co-founded The Whole Kahani, a collective of British Asian writers. I must say, it’s a privilege to have Reshma featured on the blog, telling us about her inspirational and groundbreaking work. Over to Reshma to tell us more.
1. Tell us about yourself
I am a writer and poet who lives just outside Manchester. I was born in India and I have lived in Italy and France at different stages of my life. I used to work as a development economist with the United Nations in Rome. Although I loved my work, I was getting tired of writing dry economic reports on debt defaults and structural adjustment. I had the feeling that the statistics were not showing the complex stories of the poor, the malnourished and the exploited.
I have always loved writing and was writing poetry from a young age. Moving to Manchester gave me the chance to follow my passion. I enrolled in the Masters programme for Creative Writing at Manchester University and juggled this and a subsequent PhD and bringing up two young kids. It wasn’t easy but I absolutely loved academia and the community of likeminded people. My supervisors were the brilliant Michael Schmidt and MJ Hyland and they encouraged me to keep writing and to submit my work for publication.
I have written two novels: Something Black in the Lentil Soup. It was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ My second novel, A Mouthful of Silence was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Award. It will be published next year under the title Still Lives. In 2019, I won the Word Masala Award for my debut poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties. The book came out just before the Pandemic and I am delighted that a poem from the collection, Mrs Basu leaves Town has been chosen to be a part of the Edexcel A Level Syllabus. My work has appeared in British and international journals and anthologies and commissioned for BBC Radio 4. My latest piece of work is a short story collection Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness, which is out now. Colm Toibin said this about the book, “These stories explore areas of conflict in contemporary life – the modern versus the traditional or the individual versus the group or the ethical versus the practical. They dramatize the choices made and the effect of these choices on individual lives that are memorably evoked with care and sympathy.’’ It was wonderful to have his endorsement.
I strongly feel that writing and literature must represent the diversity of our contemporary world rather than being dominated by one narrative. About ten years back I co-founded a writers’ collective of British Asian writers called The Whole Kahani. My aim was to give a platform to emerging British Asian voices and also provide a supportive network. Our collective also shows that the term ‘South Asian’ has different permutations and variety. We meet regularly and have produced two critically acclaimed anthologies, Love across a Broken Map and May We Borrow Your Country. Our third anthology of short stories, Tongues and Bellies will be out next month. I am proud of how far we have come.
Outside of writing, I love the wisdom of trees, the taste of tea and the music of Leonard Cohen. I am fond of travelling and speak Hindi, Italian, Punjabi and some French. I am not sure what language I dream in.
2. Describe your writing in five words
Exploratory, observant, compassionate, global and reflective.
3. What are you writing at the moment?
My short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness has just come out, so the past few months have been hectic in editing it and getting it ready for publication. I am ready to start thinking about my next book- which I feel might be a psychological drama.
4. What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
Seeing my first novel featured in a window display with writers such as JK Rowling and Martin Amis at a Waterstones.
This summer Manchester Literature Festival commissioned me to write a poem celebrating the spirit of Oxford Road as part of the Corridor of Light festivities. It was an honour to be filmed whilst walking around my old haunts as a student and then to actually see myself in full technicolour beamed on a cinema screen.
5. Who are your heroes in real life and in fiction?
My heroes in real life are those who have the courage to leave the moorings of the familiar and seek out newer pastures. It may be an escape or a search for something meaningful in a new country or a new relationship. Refugees fleeing persecution and war, migrants hoping to rebuild their lives and contribute to society fall in this category. Men and women wrestling with the demons of toxic ties and cutting loose.
My heroes in fiction are Oliver Kitteridge, the sharp-tongued protagonist of Elizabeth Strout’s short story collection. Her keen eyed observations of the frailty of society and her innate moral compass for good makes her memorable. My other hero is Gatsby. His aspirations to reinvent himself is both heroic and tragic.
6. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and why
I would love to meet Pablo Neruda. I love the way he uses language and imagery. He is passionate and forceful and his use of words is sensual and original. He is not afraid to lay bare his emotions and he celebrates nature, the seasons and human emotion with almost a primitive adoration.
7. What’s your favourite part of the creative process - and your least favourite?
My favourite part is when the seed of an idea or image or phrase takes hold of me. It feels like the birth of something new and exciting that must be nourished and cajoled into existence. It’s like a quiet secret that hides within me. My least favourite part is getting the first draft down. It is incredibly painful and difficult to assemble your words and creative thought in a new surprising way that does not sound stale, familiar or mundane. As writers, we only have twenty-six letters of the alphabet to play with in order to build a new universe.
8. When you are not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?
I love reading, listening to music. Classic FM or Radio 4 are the soundtracks to my writing. I am very fond of travelling-visiting unfamiliar parts of the world where seasons and time have their own rhythm, not dictated by the rat race of consumption and acquisition. I love South India, Bali and the Far East- places that have a strong sense of their own history and culture and stunning natural scenery. As I’ve grown older I’m less drawn to shiny, noisy self-aware places. I prefer a more meditative approach to life.
9. What is the one book you always recommend to people and why?
I would recommend Rohinton Mistry’s, A Fine Balance- for its epic sweep of modern Indian history, its almost Dickensian portrayal of the poor and its deep compassion for humanity. It sums up the inconsistencies and the beauty of our lives in a non-preachy, incandescent poetic way.
10. What is next for you?
My new novel, Still Lives will be published in June next year and I am getting ready to do the edits. I am excited about this book. It is set in Manchester and is about betrayal and belonging. It is about a man who must choose between betraying himself or his family.